In 1842, Barnum reopened the refurbished American Museum on Broadway near St. Paul's Chapel. The museum housed a cavalcade of curiosities, natural phenomena, outright fakes, and people whose physical appearance fell outside the norm. The next year, Barnum first met Stratton, who had stopped growing at the age of six months at only twenty-five inches tall. Barnum convinced Stratton's parents to allow him to take over the boy's education, and soon Stratton was on stage in New York. Barnum invented a back story for the boy, telling people that he was eleven years old and had emigrated from Britain. He also dubbed Stratton "Tom Thumb" after a character from Grimm's fairy tales. (The name had been coopted a few years earlier for Peter Cooper's steam locomotive, and Barnum was surely hoping to hitch his performer to Cooper's successful use of the name.)
Stratton performed a song, dance, and comedy act written for him by -- and sometimes co-starring -- Barnum. Among Stratton's biggest hits were his impersonations of famous historical figures, including Napoleon Bonaparte. Soon the act went on tour, and Stratton was the toast of Europe, meeting Queen Victoria, and cementing Barnum's status as one of the greatest promoters in history.
|The Strattons (at left) after their wedding.|
Barnum, always on the make, managed the wedding to the smallest detail. His first choice was to have the ceremony take place at St. Paul's (due to its proximity to the American Museum), officiated by Episcopal Bishop Henry C. Potter. When Trinity parish nixed the idea, Barnum switched the venue to Grace, helping cement that church's reputation as the spot for high society's biggest functions.
Admission to the wedding was via an elaborate, multi-part (and therefore, presumably, not easily forged) ticket. A separate reception admission cost $75, a fortune for many people in 1863. According to some reports, over 15,000 people applied for tickets to attend the reception, which was held at the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway. As the New York Times put it in their coverage of the nuptials, the burning question the next morning was "Did you or did you not see Tom Thumb married?"
The paper went on to note that
the Church was comfortably filled by an audience comprising representatives of each and every strata of New-York's respectable society. There were very many elegantly dressed ladies, and quite as many who paid but little respect either to the request of the inviter, the customary rules of etiquette, or the obvious proprieties of the occasion. It can hardly be considered the correct thing to newspaperize the presence of private individuals, however conspicuously placed or dressed, but the appearance of Maj.-Gen. BURNSIDE we may mention with propriety....On their honeymoon, the Strattons went to the White House, where they were warmly received by Abraham Lincoln. They remained happily married for twenty years, until Charles died of a stroke in 1883. Lavinia remarried, and continued to perform into the twentieth century, appearing in early silent films.
After the wedding, pictures of the "the General and his wife" and the "Fairy Wedding" became popular collector's items. Churches began performing "Tom Thumb Weddings" as fundraisers, with children playing the roles of the wedding party. Indeed, this appears still to be happening today. Barnum, of course, found lasting fame as one of the founders of the modern circus, and his Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey production continues to this day.
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Read more about PT Barnum and Grace Church in
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